Social and Economic Value of Sport in Ireland


P ublic policy on sports participation in Ireland is concerned mainly with sport as physical activity. The central aims are to increase participation and raise standards of performance in sport. However, sport is also a social activity and its social significance spreads well beyond those who play. The role of sport as a social outlet can take many forms, ranging from the extensive voluntary service that is provided to amateur sports club by committee members, coaches, team organisers and fundraisers, through to attendance at sports fixtures by members of the general public. Such activities are important in narrow sporting terms: many sports could not exist in their present form if there were no clubs to organise them or spectators to support them. But they also have a wider social significance. They bring people together, help build communities, and provide a focus for collective identity and belonging. The collectivities affected by sport in this way can range from the small community that supports a local club team to an entire society following the fortunes of an individual or national team in major international competition. 1.1 These social dimensions of sport have attracted growing attention over the past decade in the context of a new interest in ‘ social capital’. The concept of social capital refers to the social networks, norms, values and understandings that facilitate co- operation within or among groups (OECD, 2001, p. 41). Some see it simply as a new term for ‘community’. It is usually measured by reference to the density of people’s social networks; the extent of their participation in clubs, societies and other organisations; their level of trust in others; and their acceptance of shared norms, values and identities. Research and policy development on social capital have mushroomed around the world in the last decade or so, prompted by the belief that its social and economic benefits can be enormous. Both the World Bank and the OECD have adopted programmes on social capital (Grootaert and van Bastelaer 2002, OECD, 2001), as have many national governments. Robert Putnam, a major promoter of the concept, has claimed that “…social capital can influence everything from infant mortality rates to solid waste management to communal violence” (Putnam, 2002, p. xxii). In Ireland, the Programme for Government 2002 included a commitment to promote social capital. The National Economic and Social Forum ( NESF) has recently published an analysis of the significance of social capital for public policy and has concluded that “…social capital is one resource, among others, which can be used in support of community development” (NESF, 2003, p. 3).

The Social Significance of Sport


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